Understanding College Retention and Completion Rates

About 1 in 3 students don't return to their college for their 2nd year. 

About 1 in 3 students don't return to their college for their 2nd year. 

When evaluating schools for your son or daughter, you may see a lot of terms tossed around without much explanation – in particular, things like “retention” and “completion” rates.

What do retention and completion rates mean for your student? What should you look for in a school to help improve the chances your son or daughter will succeed?

Retention Rates

If you are going to help your student attend college you want to make sure there is a good outcome for all of the time and money invested. Thankfully, there are a few publicly available success indicators for a school – the retention and completion rate.

The retention rate refers to the percentage of students who start as a freshman and continue on into their sophomore year at the same school. A high retention rate indicates a high level of student attachment across a number of areas including the education they are receiving, the professors, campus and financial aid they are receiving. The students find the criteria they hold in high regard are being met.

On the other hand, a school with a low retention rate indicates student’s needs are not being met successfully.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), the national average for overall retention of students starting in the fall of 2014 was 70.2% for public institutions and a bit higher at 75.5% for private institutions.

You can easily check to see what prospective college retention rates are on the College Factual site. Just search for a school and click the Outcomes tab. From here you can see the freshman retention rate.

Completion Rates

Whereas retention rates focus on the first year of school, completion rates focus on the end goal – graduation. Schools typically give two types of completion rate statistics – on-time and delayed. The “On-time” rate refers to graduating on time – whether that is four years for a four-year school or two years for a two-year school. The “Delayed” rate refers to students completing their degree within three years for a two-year college or six years for a four-year college. Thus, the delayed rate will always be higher than the on-time rate.

Obviously when looking at colleges, be wary of colleges which have a low completion rate. A college which can’t help students succeed may indicate serious problems at the college – whether it is low-quality instructors or a lack of motivated students.

According to the NSCRC, the national average for delayed completion rates for 4-year public institutions with full-time students is about 71%. This drops off significantly for part-time students who have a completion rate of just 16.7%. Two-year institutions have a lower completion rate on average with just 41.6% completing their degree within six years if attending full-time while 18.4% complete when attending part-time.

As mentioned above, you can find college completion rates on College Factual’s Outcomes tab for any school you are interested looking up.

What to Look For

When looking at retention and completion rates, if you find a school that really appeals to you but they have a low rate, be sure to ask the admissions office why they think the rate is low. Maybe the setting is unique and students find living there unappealing after time or maybe the instructors aren’t as passionate about teaching as they should be.

Although low rates can be a sign of a bad college, it can also be a sign that the students attending didn’t fully mesh with the school. That’s why finding the right fit major and school is so important.

If you haven’t figured out some great matches for your student, you can log into the College Factual site and click the “Calculate your best match” button. Fill out questions on topics that are important to you and your student and we will give you back some schools and majors that may be a place to start investigating.